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Workers in Buffalo May Become the First to Unionize a Starbucks Store

If the union succeeds in Buffalo Starbucks stores, it may only be a matter of time until the example spreads elsewhere.

If the union succeeds in Buffalo Starbucks stores, it may only be a matter of time until the example spreads elsewhere.

Starbucks, the global coffee mega-chain, doesn’t have “workers” — it only has “partners,” or so the company parlance goes.

But for Alexis Rizzo, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks store in Cheektowaga, New York, this label rings hollow. “We’ve always been called partners by the company,” said Rizzo, but when it comes down to it, “we don’t have any voice.”

Jaz Brisack, a barista at Starbucks’s Elmwood Village store in Buffalo, agrees. “They call us partners, and tell us that we’re partners. But there’s no equality, so there’s no true partnership.”

This is why they both want a union. “For us,” said Rizzo, “it’s about becoming real partners and not just figurative partners.”

Rizzo and Brisack are two of 50 workers from the Buffalo area of New York who signed an August 23 letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson declaring that they were organizing a union. They announced themselves as the Starbucks Workers United Organizing Committee and called on Starbucks to sign a set of Fair Election Principles that affirm workers’ right to organize without fear of retaliation.

On Monday, August 30, Starbucks Workers United announced that it had officially filed petitions for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections at three stores in Hamburg, Cheektowaga and in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village.

Starbucks has over 8,000 corporate-owned U.S. stores, and none of them are unionized. But management now faces a significant challenge from Starbucks Workers United and their supporters in Buffalo, a pro-union city that has recently been on the cutting edge of coffee worker labor organizing.

Organizing the Union

Rizzo said Starbucks employees in Buffalo have long had “small talks” about unionizing, but that the time never seemed right. “There’s always been a lot of fear,” she said, noting the company’s long anti-union history: For decades the company’s executives have opposed unions and been mired in accusations of, and judge rulings around, unfair labor practices and illegal retaliation against pro-union workers.

But about two months ago, pro-union workers and union organizers sensed that the “stirrings were happening” among workers and that a union drive was more possible. Since then, said Rizzo, “we’ve just been working behind the scenes trying to develop our organizing committee.”

Starbucks workers set about building their union the old-fashioned way: by organizing their co-workers through direct conversations. Many workers know each other across stores through picking up shifts at different locations, and this gave organizers a good sense of who might be receptive to joining the organizing committee. Starbucks workers make up “a pretty tight-knit community,” said Rizzo. “We really just went around to different stores visiting with people and asking them what they thought” — though they kept the union talk “very covert.”

One pro-union worker that Brisack spoke to was fearful of retaliation, but said that “even if she lost her job, it would be worth it to be able to try to make the union, rather than just burning out and leaving,” according to Brisack’s recollection. Another long-time worker told Brisack that “building a union” would be her “legacy at Starbucks.”

Some came to the union in other ways. Brian Murray, a barista in Lancaster, New York, had never been involved in a union drive before. In June, he crashed the victory celebration for India Walton, Buffalo’s democratic socialist mayoral candidate who shocked the nation by defeating incumbent Byron Brown in the Democratic primary.

Some friends he met through the Democratic Socialists of America and a Black Lives Matter rally posted the location of Walton’s party online. “So I just fled there out of the blue,” Murray said with a chuckle.

At the party, Murray told some people that he worked for Starbucks, and they connected him with union organizers. Two months later, Murray is now an outspoken member of the organizing committee.

Talking to co-workers and organizing the union has been “really exciting” for him. “Some stores had incredibly high amounts of interest,” Murray said. “A lot of the Starbucks in the Buffalo area are very pro-union. A lot of workers have been waiting a long time.”

With momentum growing, the union wanted to go public before management got a whiff of things and could retaliate. The current U.S. labor shortage also gave some workers a sense that they have a little more leverage. After forming their 50-person Starbucks Workers United Organizing Committee, the workers took the plunge and sent their letter to Johnson on August 23. (The organizing committee now has 75 workers, according to Brisack.)

“We Want to Have Our Own Voice and Bargain in Good Faith”

Buffalo Starbucks workers share grievances around a range of issues, with understaffing being a major one. “We’re horrifically understaffed, almost perpetually,” said Rizzo. “We can’t provide a good experience for our customers. I have people waiting in my drive-through for upwards of 20 minutes some days.”

“It’s a really stressful environment from managing trying to have good customer experiences and also be as quick as possible,” said Murray. “A lot of workers struggle day to day trying to keep up with the pace.”

But most of all, the workers Truthout spoke with say their desire for a union is about having more power on the job and more respect within the company — in other words, becoming real “partners” who can bargain as equals with management.

“I wouldn’t have done this for so many years of my life if I didn’t love the company,” said Rizzo, who has worked at Starbucks for six years. For her, having a union means “being able to contribute in a more meaningful way” to the company. “I want to form a better place to work and a better place to visit,” she said.

While Starbucks says that its level of compensation and benefits make unions unnecessary — a long-time company line — Rizzo disagrees. “There’s always a need for employees to have a voice,” she said.

Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges told Truthout: “Our success is built on a long history of direct engagement and support for the well-being of our more than 400,000 partners around the world. So I think from our perspective, our goal is to create the space and forums for open and honest conversation as it relates to establishing and maintaining a great work environment.”

However, Murray pointed to how, in practice, many Starbucks employees do not feel their input is seriously included in workplace decisions.

“We have very little control over our workplace,” Murray said. “I think a unifying factor is that we want to have our own voice and bargain in good faith with the company.”

He also notes that Starbucks is “making billions right now with the pandemic” and that “workers deserve a share and a say in how that money is divided up since … we’re the ones making the profits for that company.”

As Starbucks’s CEO, Johnson made over $47 million in total compensation between 2018 and 2020. The company’s global CEO-to-worker compensation ratio is 1,211 to 1.

Drawing Inspiration From SpoT Coffee’s Union Drive

The workers who spoke to Truthout emphasized that the successful union drive at SPoT Coffee, a coffee chain concentrated in western New York, was pivotal in laying the groundwork for the current Starbucks campaign.

In 2019, inspired by successful union drives at a Rochester SPoT Coffee shop and Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, Buffalo SPoT workers began their own union campaign. For Buffalonians, the chain is a cultural mainstay, its seats often filled with professors, students, activists and artists. The unionization drive galvanized support and became a local cause célèbre.

After months of organizing, and a boycott to combat the firing of two union supporters, workers across four shops voted 43-6 in support of unionizing. In March 2020, the SPoT workers’ first contract went into effect.

Some current Starbucks workers followed and supported the SPoT effort, and workers involved in the SPoT campaign are now part of the Starbucks campaign.

The Starbucks and SPoT workers both belong to Workers United Upstate, which is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Before coming to Starbucks, Brisack was the lead organizer with Workers United for the SPoT campaign. She became a barista at Starbucks in December 2020.

“I think SPoT showed that barista organizing is a viable project, and a project that needs to be industry-wide in order to be able to really raise conditions for all workers in this industry,” said Brisack. “I think it also laid an incredible framework for how to do this and what workers could accomplish.”

The Buffalo Starbucks workers have so far garnered national media attention and significant public support, from labor leader Sara Nelson to a slew of local elected officials, including Congressman Brian Higgins.

In addition to the positive response from the community, Rizzo said her regular customers are “overjoyed” about the union drive.

The workers see public support as crucial to their success. “Without it,” said Murray, “I think the company could get away with a lot more than what they are now.”

Starbucks Has a History of Union-Busting

But if history tells us anything, Starbucks is calculating how to bury the union drive.

The company has a long history of resisting unions. An Industrial Workers of the World-led union campaign that began in 2004 surfaced up a number of anti-union measures by Starbucks, as I reported at the time in CounterPunch.

In February 2020, an Orlando, Florida, Starbucks barista claimed he was fired for wanting to organize a union. In the summer of 2021, a judge ruled that Starbucks illegally fired two pro-union baristas in Philadelphia — a ruling that the workers Truthout spoke with brought up.

Rizzo said that Starbucks is currently using gentler methods to dissuade unionization. “I think that our campaign really took them by surprise,” she said.

Rizzo said her district manager visited her store after the union went public, doing “what seemed a lot like gathering grievances, which is not legal.”

The National Labor Relations Acts makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed” when they form unions. This includes employers may not “imply a promise of benefits by soliciting grievances from employees during a union organizing campaign. (However, if you regularly solicited employee grievances before the campaign began, you may continue that practice unchanged.)”

Rizzo also said that management is scheduling paid “listening sessions” with employees that she believes amount to “thinly veiled” attempts to “sow anti-union rhetoric.”

When given a chance to respond by Truthout, Starbucks spokesman Borges asserted that “listening sessions are part of a regular activity that we do” and that he “wouldn’t necessarily equate listening sessions to a response to the union,” and that Starbucks conducts listening sessions “on a consistent basis” and “all over the country.”

But fear of company retaliation has kept some workers who support the union from openly signing the letter to Johnson. Brisack calls it the “biggest challenge” the union faces.

“Workers overwhelmingly are interested in organizing and can name endless things that the union could improve,” she said. “So in some ways it’s a hot shop, but in other ways people are very afraid of potential retaliation.”

Organizers hope workers interested in joining the union effort will have more job safety now that the union has gone public with a high-profile campaign.

Why It Could Happen in Buffalo

While Starbucks has beaten back every unionization attempt in the U.S., there is reason to believe that the challenge coming from Buffalo could be different.

Though the union hopes to eventually negotiate around specific grievances, the campaign isn’t foregrounding things like wages or scheduling, but instead more fundamental questions of how power and “partnership” work at Starbucks. This potentially means workers may not be as easily dissuaded from organizing, should management offer promotions or financial rewards.

Moreover, the Starbucks campaign is occurring against a backdrop of recent successful café worker union drives. Colectivo Coffee, with locations in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, voted to unionize in August, beating back employer resistance to become the largest unionized coffee chain in the U.S. The past few years have also seen organizing efforts across kindred gig, retail and service industries.

And then there’s the city where it’s all going down: Buffalo, New York. With relatively high union density in the region and a pro-union political culture, Buffalo may be an ideal place to see the first Starbucks union stores. The Starbucks workers also have the precedent of SPoT Coffee, Buffalo’s own real-life example of how retail coffee workers can win a union across multiple stores.

Moreover, India Walton’s union background and advocacy may aid the organizers. Walton strongly supports the Starbucks workers and attended the union’s August 31 press conference where they discussed their decision to file for NLRB elections in three stores.

If the union succeeds in Buffalo Starbucks stores, it may only be a matter of time until the example spreads elsewhere.

Brisack noted that this year marks Starbucks’ 50th anniversary, and that the company is sending out anniversary pins and T-shirts to stores to celebrate.

“A lot of us have been thinking that they’ve had 50 years being non-union,” she said. “What will the next 50 years be like when we can actually win the union?”

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